‘My Grandmother’ was included in Jackie Kay’s 2007 collection, Darling: New & Selected Poems. It explores themes of racism and family and is similar in many ways to other poems Kay wrote about her family (or that allude to difficulties she had growing up in Scotland).
Explore My Grandmother
‘My Grandmother’ by Jackie Kay is a powerful, surprising poem about family difficulties.
In the first part of the poem, the poet begins by describing her grandmother as a Scottish pine tree. She is proud and straight-backed in the same way. Her grandmother cares a great deal about family history and heritage, but, as the end of the first stanza reveals, she is also racist and cruel. If this poem is taken as fact, her grandmother exhibited contempt for Kay as a child when she was adopted into the family.
Structure and Form
‘My Grandmother’ by Jackie Kay is a two-stanza poem that is divided into one set of fourteen lines (that can be further divided into sets of seven lines) and one five-line stanza, or quintain. The poem is written in free verse, meaning that the poet did not make use of a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. That being said, Jackie Kay does make use of several examples of repetition, including an almost perfect refrain at the beginning of the second stanza.
The main themes of this poem are family and racism. The poet focuses on her grandmother’s life, opinions, and strengths, as well as her cruelty. If Jackie Kay was indeed drawing on personal experience when writing this poem, she was tapping into significant cruelty she experienced in her youth because of her race. Her grandmother’s comment demonstrates a startling opinion during Kay’s youth and is suggestive of what someone like Kay, who is biracial, had to contend with.
The poet uses several literary devices in this poem. They include:
- Caesura: an intentional pause in the middle of a line that’s usually created due to the poet’s use of punctuation. For example, “a fine head of hair, greying now.”
- Alliteration: the repetition of the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple words. For example, “proud” and “plentiful” are at the beginning of stanza one.
- Anaphora: the use of the same word or phrase at the beginning of multiple lines. For example, “My grandmother” at the beginning of both stanzas.
- Repetition: the use of the same literary device more than once. For example, the poet repeats the first few lines almost exactly in the final stanza.
- Metaphor: a comparison between two things that does not use “like” or “as.” For example, “Her face is ploughed land.”
- Simile: a comparison between two things that uses “like” or “as.” For example, “My grandmother is like a Scottish pine.”
My grandmother is like a Scottish pine,
tall, straight-backed, proud and plentiful,
a fine head of hair, greying now
tied up in a loose bun.
Her face is ploughed land.
Her eyes shine rough as amethysts.
She wears a plaid shawl
of our clan with the zeal of an Amazon.
Jackie Kay begins the first stanza of the poem with a simile. She extends the simile into the second line as she describes how her grandmother is similar to a Scottish pine tree. She compares the two, suggesting that her grandmother is just as “tall, straight-backed, proud and plentiful” as the Scottish pine trees she grew up around.
The use of the words “proud” and “plentiful” in this second line create an example of alliteration. With the addition of the word “pine” in the first stanza, Jackie Kay can create a feeling of rhythm without actually using a metrical pattern or rhyme scheme.
The poet transitions into a metaphor in the fifth line, saying that her grandmother’s face is “ploughed land.” This is a very clear allusion to the wrinkles that have appeared on her grandmother’s face as she’s aged.
The poet is suggesting that these lines are the same lines one might see plowed into a field. While this does draw attention to her grandmother’s age, it’s clear from the context that the poet does not intend for this line to come across as an insult. It is just another way to describe her grandmother with the nature-based semantic field that Kay is employing.
The focus on nature-based images continues into the next line when the poet uses a simile to describe her grandmother’s eyes as amethysts. This is a particular type of precious gemstone that’s dark purple in color. By describing her this way, she’s suggesting that there is something special about her. Purple eyes are incredibly uncommon, and whether this statement is true or not, it does paint the poet’s grandmother in a special light.
The same can be said for the next lines that describe her as an Amazon or a powerful, independent, and sometimes dangerous woman. She cares deeply about the family’s heritage as well, Kay suggests. This is seen through the poet’s description of her grandmother wearing a plaid shawl in the style of their particular clan, as an Amazon warrior might wear her armor.
She is one of those women
My grandmother sits by the fire and swears
There’ll be no darkie baby in this house
In the next seven lines, the poet goes on to describe her grandmother as one who would rather “burn…in her croft,” or on her small farm, than move from it. This statement fits him perfectly with everything that the poet has revealed about her grandmother so far. She loves her family, she’s strong, she cares about heritage and history, and she is proud of where she comes from. Someone like this is never going to be moved from their home.
The poem takes a very interesting turn at the end of the first stanza. She quotes her grandmother saying, “there’ll be no darkie baby in this house.” These lines are in italics, making it very clear that Kay meant for this to be read as a quote from someone else, not herself.
This brings in racism as a startling and unsettling theme. Considering what is known of Jackie Kay’s personal life (the fact that she is a biracial woman adopted into a Scottish family), it seems likely that she was at least in part drawing on her own experiences for this poem.
Another interpretation suggests that she may have generally been speaking about the attitude towards black men and women in Scotland during her youth. It’s clear from the previous lines, like the description of her grandmother only speaking English when she has to, that the older woman feels like change is a bad thing.
She likely does not like the fundamental changes she sees going on in Scottish society, and the racist quote about a black child in her home represents the worst of her opinions.
My grandmother is a Scottish pine,
and her eyes are amethysts.
The poem ends with repetition. The poet uses the same example of figurative language seen in the first stanza and makes it very clear that there are things about her grandmother to be admired and things to be critiqued. She has two different sides, one that is proud and powerful and another that is racist and cruel. The poem ends with the same image of the grandmother’s eyes as amethysts but adds the word “ice” to describe better her lack of care for those she didn’t like or ideas she disagreed with.
The purpose is to describe the difficulties that black men, women, and children faced during Jackie Kay’s youth in Scotland. The poet may be tapping into a personal experience as she describes her grandmother’s reaction to her adoption into the family.
The message is that all people are multiple things at the same time. This woman was a grandmother, a proud Scott, and a cruel racist when it came to a black child being adopted into her family.
The tone is, at times, appreciative when the poet describes her grandmother’s power and pride. But, in general, the tone is excepting and descriptive, depicting the grandmother’s racism and icy heart.
Kay likely wrote this poem in order to describe some of the difficulties she faced as a child in Scotland, growing up with misplaced pride and racism.
If you enjoyed this poem, consider exploring some other Jackie Kay poems. For example:
- ‘In the Seventh Year’ – is a description of a wonderful and changing relationship.
- ‘Love Nest’ – alludes to the difficulties that same-sex couples faced, and still face today, in an unaccepting society.
- ‘Pork Pies’ – is an incredibly disturbing poem inspired by the murder of a young child by other young children in Britain in the 1990s.